Dealing with casual bullying/racism at work?
January 27, 2013 6:23 PM   Subscribe

I'd appreciate your advice on dealing with what seems to me racist joking/bantering at work -- particularly when it's directed at me. This is my first white-collar job since moving to North America, and I think this kind of "joking around" is unacceptable but this office's culture seems to tolerate it.

Some context: A couple of years ago we were forced to leave quite suddenly our country due to violence targeted at our children. My wife tells me I am still grieving the loss of what we left back home -- extended family, our careers, our home and even status -- which may help explain why I am in no mood for people cracking jokes at my background's expense.

After working a few odd jobs I found an office job in my field, although at a junior level and with below-average pay. But I was happy to take it because with foreign credentials and experience white-collar jobs are hard to come by. It's a high-stress environment and there is a lot of aggressiveness in office interactions, which may shed some light on my situation. I've done my best to steer clear of office politics and just worked my butt off, which paid off since I was very quickly promoted.

The problem: There is a guy (younger than me) in my new team who has been giving me a hard time since joining them, and lately has been taking to say bullying remarks just to get a reaction out of me. He plays the political game: he pretends to be a team player, sucking up to the right people -- while at the same time elbowing me out of a couple of projects. We were instructed to work together in a new fancy project, which may be the cause of his recent verbal abuse escalation. (My gut tells me he feels threatened by me: I've shown to be more experienced and knowledgeable on what we do, and he probably has a hard time accepting that the foreigner from the country with the name he can't pronounce may just do a better job than him.)

My relationship with my boss is conflicted -- on one hand he's a gregarious, funny and generous gentleman, fair to me in work dealings and well-liked... but he's also sort of a "lovable rascal" who prides himself in his off-color jokes and politically incorrect teasing. As much as I like my boss, he is part of the problem: his un-PC kidding makes my coworker feel it's okay to troll me (and only me) with demeaning comments making fun of my nationality.

At first when these guys started with the teasing comments a few months ago I thought "okay they're just hazing me I'll just pretend I don't care and they'll stop eventually". It's actually only gotten worse. Like many (all?) introverts I avoid confrontation, but it's gotten to the point where I need to do something or else I won't be able to continue working there. Which is a source of much anxiety because I dread the options available: Quit, which isn't an option with a family to support in a strange land where my foreign credentials/experience aren't worth much... Or put my foot down and make this shit stop.

To give just one example of what I mean: Once I was joking in a self-deprecating way with some guys from another team about a silly mistake I'd made (and fixed), and this coworker butted into the conversation to say something to the effect of "lol must be because of your ____ background huh?", throwing me a provoking look as if to say "u mad bro?" I was offended, and challenged him to repeat himself but he just pretended not to hear as he slinked away. Disrespectful stuff like this happens a few times a week btw.

As I am still fairly new to North American work culture, I'd like to ask you what is the best way for me to handle this? Should I write this guy a short professional email, focusing on the need for respect if we're going to work as a team.. Or should I pull him away to talk to him about it? Should I involve my boss in either the email or the talk? (I don't know how supportive my boss will be, considering that he himself usually makes similar jokes about everyone, albeit in an "aw shucks" manner which comes off more teasing than mean or humiliating). Alas, HR is not an option atm. And yes probably the best thing would be to find a new workplace, but for a newcomer like me that takes serious time and effort; this is something I plan on doing but in the meantime I need to deal with the situation right now.

[And finally, am I being oversensitive? I ask myself, What if my black friend tells me that his coworkers taunt him when he makes an everyday mistake with "Must be because of your black background lol"? I would tell him that's racist and unfair, and that he shouldn't stand for that treatment. Well, looks like it's time to stand up for myself. It's unfair and infuriating that I even need to deal with this bullshit but here we are. On a final note, there is no other place where I would feel safe sharing any of this. Mefi is the one place on the net or IRL where I feel like I "belong" among like-minded, sensible people, and I highly value your input.]

Apologies for the wall of text. I tried to stick to the more relevant details of a long story.. if you have any questions please ask. Thank you for reading and thanks for any input.
posted by papafrita to Work & Money (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's not OK. Your response is spot-on, to me, and I think you should indeed bump this discussion up to your boss. Even though your boss is a part of it, I'm sure he would be savvy enough to realize that this sort of behavior needs to be cracked down on if anyone is complaining about it. No one wants to deal with harassment lawsuits.

The thing is that sometimes the right thing to do is not the easy thing and not the safest thing.... if you're worried about some sort of retaliation for being the guy "with no sense of humor" or whatever, the safest path is obviously keep your head down and say nothing.

I think only you know your workplace and situation well enough to say how safe you'd feel talking to your boss... but I would absolutely agree that if the question is about whether you're being oversensitive - NO.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:31 PM on January 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Good grief, you made a mistake "because of your ____ background"?!?!? Yes he is definitely trying to get a rise out of you. I would say directly to him, not when he says something but when you are calm, "hey, if you have questions about my ____ background I'd be happy to talk to you about it, but your drive-by disparaging comments about it are out of line & unprofessional."

After that, reply right there & then each time he says something racist with "that's unprofessional." Each time, without hesitation and without emotion, making it about him and his inappropriateness & not about how it might affect you. Because racism is all about the person who displays it, and this guy is the type who will twist "you're offending me" into you being oversensitive.

If it continues, I'd bring it up with the boss.
posted by headnsouth at 6:32 PM on January 27, 2013 [19 favorites]

He's playing a pretty risky game. There are definitely workplace policies against the sort of overt "joke" he was directing at you. At the very least, review the section in your employee documentation about harassment. He's over the line, and you're not wrong to see it that way.

I really wonder why you say "HR is not an option" - is it because you don't have an HR department? It should always be some sort of option. I appreciate that you are in a tough position because your boss is also an idiot about this, but this is pretty egregious. You can call your state attorney general's office to learn about what laws may apply in your area. Not that you want to go that route right off the bat, but you may want to know what context you're operating in, and state employment laws vary.
posted by Miko at 6:41 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

To add to headnsouth's advice, I'd also say document everything -- every time anyone says something racist or inappropriate, record it so you can track how often it's occurring and bring it to your boss or HR (if that becomes an option).
posted by pised at 6:41 PM on January 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Jerk face: Go back to your jerky country of origin
You (checks watch, smiles): 10.08am, ok then. Sorry can you repeat that phrase, just want to make sure I've got it right
Jerk face: Huh?
You: Can you repeat what you just said? For my documentation. You understand. I'm getting quite the collection, it's going to make for interesting reading for a few of your bosses. And HR. Anything else to add while I have my pen out?
(Repeat as necessary)
posted by Jubey at 7:09 PM on January 27, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'd say, go to your boss, taking a friendly and confiding tone.

"Boss, this is awkward to bring up, but it's been getting worse and I need to bring it to your attention. You know I'm a team player and not a tattletale, but I've had just about enough of Phil's race crap. You know what I'm talking about, right?" [Gives boss a chance to either acknowledge, or deny. If deny, then:] "you know, it might seem funny to you, but I wouldn't be sitting here asking you to take this seriously if it weren't a real problem. Last week he actually said X and Y. It's way, way over the line. I've told him to knock it off, and I'm going to tell him more forcefully, and I'm asking you to make it clear to him as well. There's a reason this is against the law."

Hopefully your boss will get the hint that not only Phil's remarks, but his own remarks, and his laissez-faire attitude towards Phil, are all fodder for a nice racial-harassment-at-work lawsuit. (Which they are; but that's not the result you need right now.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:09 PM on January 27, 2013 [53 favorites]

I am hoping you're a salaried regular employee, not hourly and not on a contract. If you are either of the latter, you're not as protected as if you've been taken on as a Regular Full Time (RFT) employee, with benefits and an annual salary.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think some concrete examples may help us answer your question.

You're in Canada!? IME, albeit in academia as a grad student, workplaces are typically much much more culturally experienced than the workplace you describe. Your profile says that you're in comp.sci - possibly there is a much lower level of maturity in your particular workplace.

No, it's not acceptable. Practically, though, what is your best expected outcome?

There's a *small* possibility that it's just a cultural thing, but I think there's probably a closed-minded bro-dude attitude where you work at; if you were raised a local and were openly other (say, homosexual), you'd get the same treatment and it'd be just as unacceptable.

OTOH, it might possibly also be a personality thing - as a grad student, my social circle at "work" was really inappropriate about EVERYTHING and our most common joke during the last year we were all around was that "we'd never be able to hold down a regular job because we're so uncouth and we'd get fired within the week" - but the jokes that we made/thought-were-funny was exactly because they were taboo and we knew they were "wrong" but knew that none of us actually thought the jokes were funny because of the primary "meaning" but that's why they were funny, because of, well, meta.

Has anyone ever denigrated their own backgrounds/stereotypes? If not, then my "wacky group of weirdo friends" thing is probably not your case.

On the face of it - let HR know. Don't make a big fuss otherwise the situation can devolve. Look for another place to work.
posted by porpoise at 7:20 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to being rotten behavior, this sounds like the type of behavior that could get a company in legal trouble, so bring it to the attention of your superiors and human resources is a low key way that doesn't make them overreact with the thought "this is a litigious employee". By the way, if your native tongue is not English, you sure write well in English.
posted by Dansaman at 7:21 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

You're not being oversensitive. Your office sounds terrible and that kind of behavior shouldn't be tolerated, competitive environment or not.

Alas, HR is not an option atm. And yes probably the best thing would be to find a new workplace, but for a newcomer like me that takes serious time and effort; this is something I plan on doing but in the meantime I need to deal with the situation right now.

I don't know how long it's been since you've been promoted but even if it's only been a day, you've been promoted and that shows employers something about your work. So start looking around! And the reason I say this is because...

throwing me a provoking look as if to say "u mad bro?" I was offended, and challenged him to repeat himself but he just pretended not to hear as he slinked away.

Sounds like you're doing just fine. This guy is a jackass who can't even own up to his shitty comments. Slunk away like a dog? Consider that a job well done and get back to the task at hand. I'm hoping (betting) your other co-workers saw how big (little?) a piece of shit this guy was in this interaction. Feel free to keep calling him out. If this office culture is aggressive, that means you should feel free to be as assertive as possible to this jackass, even if it means bordering on aggression.

Remember, you're on your way to a better job at a better company.
posted by driedmango at 7:28 PM on January 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

My usual bit of advice for these office bullying questions is that you should (conspicuously) keep a daily journal. If anyone asks, it's just to help your work performance. I found that people who (I felt) were bullying me started minding their manners when they thought I was keeping track of our interactions.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:34 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are not being oversensitive.

Documentation seems wise.

If you are interested in maintaining relations with the asshole co-worker, for the purposes of working together, it makes sense to speak to him directly before going to the boss. But frankly, you have every right to go right to your boss and expect that he manage an environment free from harassment.

Are there other co-workers who you have relationships with who might share your concerns? Having even one other co worker jointly approaching your boss about the office environment might emphasize the immanence of the problem.
posted by sb3 at 7:42 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

this is certainly inappropriate behavior on your co-worker's part. i think it's best to talk to him first and then if he doesn't knock it off i'd take it to the boss. i really like how you challenged him to repeat himself and he shut up. that tells you something about him. saying that, "what did you just say?" directly & pointedly after his insults just might be enough to get this guy to knock it off. it seems bullies frequently back down when they are confronted because they respect powerful people.

i'm sorry you're experiencing this after everything you've been through.
posted by wildflower at 8:11 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start documenting, when you have enough of a paper trail, go to your boss. If you're boss doesn't respond appropriately go to HR. If you're in Canada, human rights codes are really strongly against this type of treatment. And most HR professionals would tak this very seriously.
posted by dry white toast at 8:20 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If HR is not an option, and you're not comfortable bringing this to your boss, I think you need to cultivate a patronizing attitude toward this guy. When he insults you in front of others, respond with a smile and joking manner "haha. Let me apologize for my team member's crass behavior. Sometimes he just doesn't get it! Hahaha." "Hahaha, were you raised in a barn, dude?" "Geez, that's so unprofessional, even I'm shocked this time, hahaha!" Even "Seriously?" or "Ooookay, then!" with wide eyes and a smile on your face will get your message across. Gentle public ridicule, done professionally and with humor, can be a very effective tactic against these kinds of people. Keep it light, add a few eye rolls, maintain your professional composure, and you can put a quick stop to it.

If the jokey stance doesn't work for you, another tactic is to act embarrassed FOR him. You can approach him directly with this one by saying "Maybe you don't realize how unprofessional that was. There's been some talk around the office, and I would hate to see you damage your reputation any further." After that initial awkward conversation, just practice deflecting your uneasiness and embarrassment on to him.
posted by raisingsand at 8:21 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

By the way, the reason I suggested taking it straight to your boss is because it sounds like you've already made clear that you don't find these sorts of comments amusing, and yet they're being made multiple times per week.

You don't want to get in a prolonged battle of the wills/regular confrontation with your co-workers, and you shouldn't have to. Take it to the boss.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:21 PM on January 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, I totally didn't pick up on the testosterone thing.

Are your coworkers younger 20-something "bras"? Yeah. fuck 'em. Continue to be badass at what you do and make management know that it's you and you'll leave them behind.
posted by porpoise at 8:26 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a U.S. citizen of an Honorary White Person minority (I'm mixed-race Chinese and Caucasian) and on the occasions I've had to deal with this kind of idiocy, I usually harp on ignorant white people stereotypes and "give as good as I get" when I'm entirely certain I will never go to HR.
posted by kalessin at 8:35 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should elaborate that in my real world, HR is often not an option for a person who is working on sponsorship or other kinds of immigration support. Also in my real world, though going to boss or HR is the "right" thing to do, the fact that it brings the threat of trials or censure from the law into the equation can make it seem like the complainant is the troublemaker, not the folks who are committing the illegal acts of harassment.

So in my real world, you pick your battles where you're going to escalate through legal channels (just as you would also do with worker's comp or invoking the ADA or other forms of federally- or state-protected labor rights - both things I have done in my working career and also chosen not to do, depending on the job, the employer, the boss, the company culture and how desperately I needed my next paycheck or promotion).

I'm not saying that not going to HR is the best idea here, but it's possible that the OP is in possession of enough of the facts to know he's not interested in going to HR, and that's totally fine I think.

In situations of being a victim of harassment where you are not intending to invoke official protections it's been my hard-earned experience that the best way to deal with ongoing harassment is to come back strong and to show you've got enough backbone to not only endure but also to (ideally only verbally) hit back. I recognize that this is risky behavior, but I also think that going to HR is risky behavior. You have to understand what you are risking and what your likely result or rewards will be.
posted by kalessin at 8:45 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wow. I gotta be honest, I didn't expect this much of a response on a random Sunday night. First of all, thank you to everyone who took the time to read this, and thank you very very much to those who have replied.

In my original post I tried not to be too specific as I wouldn't like it if someone were to figure out my identity (which happened once a long time ago when I gave a bit too much detail). But yes, this is in Canada, ON specifically. I am aware of my rights and somewhat aware of discrimination laws, but I do know that they're there. I am still a bit concerned that this post may not be fully "anonymous" as it were, so let me just say that I have reasons to believe that HR won't fully have my back on this.

I am really impressed by some of the suggestions here. I will definitely have a very short talk with this guy tomorrow, headnsouth style. (The suggestion to make this about his "unprofessional-ness" as opposed to my offended-ness is spot on.) As an introvert I'm getting butterflies in my stomach just thinking about the confrontation.. but then I remind myself that he's younger than my kid sister and hell yes this is something I can definitely handle.

I will also talk to my boss. I dig fingersandtoes's suggestion to talk to him confidingly about it... while at the same time sending the unspoken message that this is also something that he should be thinking about.

A bit more on the guy: Some of you have been very perceptive and picked up on the fact that this is a twentysomething macho sports guy, who probably feels that I'm invading his turf and is reacting in the only sad way he knows how to. I'm going to risk giving some more detail and I'll tell you that he is afaik a second-gen immigrant, although from a (yes, white) European background which probably makes him think he's superior to the non-white immigrants, and who still has a bit of an accent. This is again from my gut, but I'd bet he was victim of similar abuse growing up here and now he's just dealing it back out. Damned if I'm going to be his punching bag.

Documentation seems indeed wise. I am very sad it got to this point, but it's the smart thing to do. To the person who said that I am but on the way to a better job, thank you, you rock. And to the person who asked if English was my first language or not, it isn't but thank you for asking -- you made my day !

The support from you guys has been amazing. I'll try and get some rest now, big day tomorrow. I'll touch base again to let you guys know how things went. Thank you all again.
posted by papafrita at 9:18 PM on January 27, 2013 [17 favorites]

Honestly, it sounds like you are doing so great, and really "being the person you want to be" in this, in spite of your anxiety and frustration with the situation. I am really in admiration of your ability to assert your boundaries despite feelings of uncertainty and status issues etc etc. I would like to think I would approach this with the same courage, but don't know if I would ultimately. It's easier to talk a good game here on mefi.

I work in the IT sector, and have worked in one particularly macho, alpha-male dept that has actually been sued for harrassment and discrimination twice in the last year!

I would say two things:

Firstly, your instincts about what to say are absolutely correct. I vehemently disagree with the "give as good as you get" crowd. a) harrassment is harrassment, whether it's in response to abuse or not. It's unethical, unprofessional, and mean b) doing this normalises aggressive and hostile interactions - the last thing you want to do. You want to let this guy know that it is absolutely unacceptable in any setting. And to do that you need to model appropriate behaviour. In this spirit, I would expand somewhat on a great suggestion above: "Alex, stop saying things like that around me. It's unprofessional. People get fired for saying things like that."

Additionally, I think you should go to manager, and HR both. Without knowing why you think HR won't support you, I would remind you that HR's primary reason for existence is to prevent the company from being sued. Whatever personal animus or opinions they might have, they will, in most cases, be extremely sensitive about any potential liability or exposure the company may have. They may personally support racist cat-calls, but professionally they will want that shut the hell down fast. This is especially true the larger the organisation is.

I feel that if you approach this with your manager in a friendly, but firm way, it won't jeopardise your position with the company. But I would recommend as a little bit of insurance that you keep a record of every instance as soon as possible. Just in case.

Best of luck. I have worked in environments where tacit racism abounded from the CEO up, it's tremendously challenging. I ended up leaving that job, and the racism (though I am, myself, white) was the primary reason.
posted by smoke at 11:11 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Lol must be because of your ____ background huh?"
"Meaning what?"
"Cut that shit out. I'm serious."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to work in a blue-collar environment where this sort of abuse was a daily thing, though not usually racist in nature since the company hired very few minorities to begin with. There was no HR department. The boss would never put a stop to it, partly because one of the worst offenders was a salesman and supervisor who brought in a lot of very profitable work. Telling that guy he was being unprofessional would only have elicited a gleeful cackle.

...this coworker butted into the conversation to say something to the effect of "lol must be because of your ____ background huh?", throwing me a provoking look as if to say "u mad bro?" I was offended, and challenged him...

This guy is *trying* to offend you, in order to raise his own status. Directly challenging him only confirms for him that he hit his target. The more effective response, in my experience, is scorn. He's not going to feel good about himself if you roll your eyes, shake your head in disappointment and say, "Man, that shit's getting old."
posted by jon1270 at 3:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I hate to say this, but I think you have to weigh the worst possible consequence of upsetting your boss. Because you've made it clear that this is all going on with the full support and approval, if not actual participation, of your boss. The deciding factor in job outcomes is not performance, it's *whether or not you upset your boss.* So far, you have said nothing, and your boss clearly is not upset with you because you've been promoted. If you stop doing what you've always done, you're likely to stop getting what you've always gotten - in bad ways as well as good ways.

So what is the worst possible consequence of changing the way you respond to this? If you lose this job will you have no stream of income because you won't be entitled to unemployment benefits? Will you lose residency rights? Basically how much power does this workplace have over you?

I know this must sound like I'm advising you to just bend over for it, but I am *not*. I am suggesting that you factor in the worst as a realistic possibility. Because I've known people, including lawyers who were advising me, say "oh your boss can't do this, oh your boss can't do that, if they do a thing like x that's quite serious" the boss goes ahead and does x (seems like it was physically possible, after all!) and then it turns out my only recourse was "oh dear, sucks to be you" because they did x and lo and behold it was quite serious - for me! And legally, I am entitled to little squeaks of sympathy as I deal with the consequences totally on my own. Because apparently the law is there as a deterrent, not to sanction people after they break it.

I am not telling you to live your life in a spirit of fear, but I am saying you need to be very calculating and use your experience of these guys to think about what they might actually do in response to your answering back, rather than putting faith in legal rights that you may or may not have any power to enforce. If your residency is secure and the worst thing that could happen is that these guys fire you and give you a bad reference (yes they can do this, legally or not) that would be hard, but all that would happen is you'd be unemployed for a while until you found something else, and maybe you could get a peer reference from someone you worked with who's not a racist fuckwit. But if they can do something to screw up your immigration status, your efforts might be better focused on finding a new job and swallowing your pride in the meantime, even if that takes time.
posted by tel3path at 4:18 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

It depends where you want to draw your own line about what's okay and not okay at work, but you may be able to drive a wedge between your boss and your colleague by talking to your boss as if you are cool with a bit of joke (ie the way your boss behaves) but your colleague is over the line. I guess this is essentially what Fingersandtoes suggested, but it butters up your boss a bit more by making him still a good guy and you a good sport who doesn't just whine about small things.

I realise there's an element of having to be complicit with some un-PC comments to get action on more serious ones and that may be unpalatable, but I thought I should mention the idea as a possible approach.
posted by crocomancer at 4:47 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

From Toronto:
What I'm understanding is that you are dealing with two species of colleagues: one, like your boss, who make off-color jokes that sometimes miss the mark but who you don't find generally offensive (my test for this has always been (1) a gut feeling combined with (2) do they joke about their own background as much or more than other peoples); and the second, like this idiot, who is full-on trolling you.

I would think that the appropriate response when people in the first group make a joke that crosses the line is to respond to it like it was a serious statement without taking offense (as a random and possibly inaccurate example: "actually, clan tartans aren't really a Scottish thing, of those Victorian impositions, you about those quarterly reports...") which I have seen work on others and have worked on me as sort of a gentle corrective for a person who has NO intention of offending.

For the second group? Silence, the awkward kind. Raised eyebrows. Possibly a properly-inflected "...Really?" as in "Did you really just say that out loud?" If you feel you can carry it off, maybe a deadpan "Why yes, [name], it's well known that people from [background] are born without the ability to [highly specific thing]." Pair this with an eye-roll. Either of these options followed immediately by ignoring the guy and picking up the conversation again with the other co-workers as if he didn't say anything.

However you choose to handle it, however, you are not being oversensitive. If you think it's appropriate, bear in mind that there are also Human Rights Commissions for this sort of thing, though I understand why you want to try to manage the situation yourself.
posted by sarahkeebs at 5:06 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, obviously the guy is behaving like an asshole, but he may not actually be a total asshole. Particularly in Canada, I think that what you are describing is actually pretty common, especially in smaller offices without a huge HR department. Part of it is just that Canada in many ways likes to think of itself as being entirely post-racial, so that teasing someone about their country of origin is just as valid and chummy as teasing them about them liking a crappy hockey team. I know certainly that my friends and I will make the most racially insensitive jokes to each others faces, and it's just camraderie.

That said, the other information you give here (him elbowing you out of projects) does suggest that it might be malicious. Also, if it rubs you the wrong way that it's not okay, regardless of his intent.

The only reason I even bring this up is because it may well be the case that he doesn't realize that he's even being offensive (though it's hard to tell from your example, there's a pretty big difference between "must be because Chinese people are so dumb" and "I guess you're probably used to working on keyboards with like 10,000 keys, right?"). If that's the case, it's very likely that a quick private non-confrontational conversation will totally defuse the situation. If I were you, I'd even invoke your kids: "Dude, I know you're just joking around, but I'm still dealing with the fact that I literally had to leave everything behind in $Country because I was worried my kids were actually going to get fucking killed. When people bring up $Country or my ethnicity, even in fun, it makes things really hard for me because that stuff is all so fresh. Can you cool it maybe? I know other people respect you here and if you knock it off, they probably will too."

Then, if necessary, have the same chat with your boss.

On the other hand, you could raise a stink about it. Culture of post-racial teasing or not, those sorts of comments are certainly not officially kosher with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and escalating it would likely work out in your favour. That would be more likely to teach the people involved a lesson, but it will also be a much bigger hassle for you.
posted by 256 at 7:02 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just as an anecdote:

My husband works for a major national internet/cable company. He has a coworker (R.) who is of Mexican-American heritage (but was born in the US, as far as I know). A couple of months ago, my husband came home and said that another coworker had been fired within the hour because of an offhand comment he made to R -- something like, "Oh, but you wouldn't want to go to that restaurant because they don't serve enchiladas, right?" (I'm totally making that up, but it was along those lines, and it was said with some degree of rudeness.) I believe that the second coworker had a history of saying "stupid shit" like this, whether racially/ethnically based or not.

Some companies don't care about this. Some do. I know that my husband's company is in the middle of trying very hard to improve their image among customers (and everyone else). Kicking out people who don't respect their coworkers seems like it fits with that aim, too: you never know when a stupid remark could turn into something much more serious that affects the way the company does business.
posted by Madamina at 8:57 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice in this thread, but I'll add that if internal complaints fail, or if the situation becomes so hostile that you cannot work there, there is also the option of filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Personally, I think it's best to exhaust other options before going that route, but it's good to know it's there as a last resort. That site also has some good resources.
posted by Kurichina at 12:17 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi all. A quick update on what happened today: The guy, let's call him Phil, did not show up to work, which gave me the chance to have a chat with the boss. Taking fingersandtoes' advice to heart I had a confiding talk with him, which actually went better than I expected. I touched on the main points f&t suggested, but knowing my boss I stopped short of asking him to talk to Phil himself. (My boss is the kind of "rugged individual" who, when told to do something will go the other way just to show you he won't play by your rules, so the best thing with him is to "plant the seed of an idea" in his mind and let it grow).

Actually the best I expected from him was an "ok you've told me, you want to talk to Phil go ahead" (worst case: scorn or huffy dismissal)... but he even responded with some warmth/concern, asked me to keep him updated, and even offered the possibility that Phil maybe didn't realize he was being offensive. I responded with "you're right boss, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt although it's not the first time, I'll still have a short professional talk with him to remind him to keep office interactions respectful, thank you". My point is the tone of our talk was very friendly, he responded positively, and I felt much much better after getting that off my chest.

On a related note, the rest of the day was just great. I was in a great mood and had a very productive workday. Without Phil around I didn't feel like I needed to keep my guard up all the time and laser-focused on my work, slashing tasks left and right. If all days were like this I wouldn't be thinking of leaving.. but my priority is the quality of my family life (esp. after all they've been through) and -- I hate myself when I do this -- but I tend to be crabby at home when I have a hard time at work. Which means that depending on what happens after my talk with Phil tomorrow I might be looking for a new job anyway. But no matter, I feel empowered by the support shown here and actually I'm now even very relaxed about all this, I don't feel anymore like I was being "weak" or "oversensitive" for feeling this way and I have you guys to thank for it.

To address some of your questions/comments:

I should have said that HR is not a desirable option. They remain my last resort if necessary -- I would like to avoid involving them though, at least until I can show that I first made an attempt to deal with the issue directly and professionally. However with my boss's support I think (hope) resorting to them won't be needed.

sarahkeebs: I think you got that exactly right. It's one thing when the boss does it because actually most of his jokes are self-deprecating (also the gut says "not trying to troll").. but it's another thing when Phil does it because it's part of a general pattern of ill-will and aggressive competition and just generally a bad vibe.

Thanks to those who have posted links to the HR Commission. Going to the HRC or the Ministry of Labour are valid options, let's hope it doesn't get to that but it's good to know the law has my back. For sure I will exhaust all other possible avenues first. Oh, and fortunately my legal status here does not depend on this employer. My only concern is losing my first "real job" in this sweet sweet country, I would feel like I'm letting my family and myself down. I knew starting afresh somewhere new wouldn't be easy and I'm trying my damnedest to be a strong and mature person about this.

256: I do believe there is some of the "post-racial" thing going on at work. Which on a theoretical level I used to think I was cool with as I have a soft spot for all things "post-" ... but on a practical level it has the problems of "ironic racism" that we have discussed on mefi before. I could maybe write quite a few more words on this but I've already rambled on enough in this so-called "quick update". Let me just say that even the funniest joke, by the most enlightened, un-racist, sensitive dude, made at your background's expense still smarts... and since everyone who "gets" and enjoys the joke in so many meta levels is sooo post-racial and enlightened you feel like you just have to be cool with it. But that's another discussion for another time.

In any case I've always had the feeling that Phil lacked the self-awareness or the sensitivity to style himself as "post-racial", and was simply a racist dude who was happy to find himself in an environment where the cool kids make openly (post-)racist jokes. There might be a lesson here for those who make post-racist ironic jokes: at the very least, the "who cares" attitude towards racially-offensive remarks could make real racists think they're in a safe environment to openly say offensive crap. Case in point: Phil.

Thank you all again for your input. I will let you know tomorrow how my talk with Phil goes.
posted by papafrita at 9:16 PM on January 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Thanks for the update; great to hear a happy resolution for you. PS I don't know if you got it/check it but I memailed you some more info, just fyi.
posted by smoke at 9:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Last update: Yesterday I had the chance to sit down with the guy. I received bad news from back home early in the day, so I tried my best to keep the conversation short and sweet as I was in not a great mood. The guy made an effort to listen to my concerns, and ended up apologizing. I'm still not 100% sure of his sincerity, but all in all I think this is as good an outcome as I could have expected.

Thank you everybody. And thanks to those who sent PMs I will get back to you in the next few days.
posted by papafrita at 3:51 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

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